The music video for Childish Gambino’s chart topping song “This Is America” won three MTV Video Music Awards this past week, including Best Direction, Best Choreography, and Best Video With A Message. The energetic video went viral when it was released in May, garnering praise from fellow artists and activists for drawing attention to racial injustice in the United States. It was so successful at grabbing attention that global artists borrowed the tune and the video format to talk about injustices in their own countries.
Read on and discover some of the top covers from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, all available on YouTube.
First, let’s break down the original.
“This Is America” begins with a dancing Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of actor Donald Glover, in an empty warehouse. He is accompanied by young children in school uniforms who join him in especially jubilant dances while scenes of chaos erupt in the background. Throughout the video, Glover’s smiling face is at odds with the violence happening around him. He only breaks character during the chorus, where the music abruptly changes, and he lets us in on the irony of playing a fool while the world erupts in flames.
Although the American media and fans on the Internet presented a number of detailed interpretations of the video and all its possible symbols, Glover remained tight-lipped. It is perhaps his refusal to elaborate on the meaning of the images that made analysing it so much more attractive to audiences. In an interview on the press tour for the new Star Wars film “Solo”, Glover declined to solve any of the lingering mysteries saying, “It’s not my place,” and that the video was out there “for the people” to decide.
FALZ, “THIS IS NIGERIA”
Later in May, Nigerian rapper Falz, nee Foralin Falana, the son of a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, released his cover of “This Is America” on YouTube. The song deals frankly with issues such as government corruption, Boko Haram, and celebrity culture.
Though the tune is the same, the lyrics are all his own.“This is Nigeria. Look how I’m living now,” he shrugs as he steps over a dead body, “Everybody be criminal”. Women wearing long hijabs dance the Shaku Shaku behind him while he moves through the scenery, full of guns, flashy cars, and piles of cash. Towards the end, he is harassed by security forces who then proceed to beat his companions.
In a local interview with a Nigerian entertainment show Falz talks about the video being a “wake up call” to young people and encourages viewers to be more socially conscious. “These things are blatantly happening in front of ours” he decries. “But everybody is turning a blind eye and looking the other way. No one is doing anything, no one is reacting.”
Although Falz received much praise, even being compared to legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, it struck a sour note with some. The Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission issued a fine to a radio station for playing its “vulgar lyrics”. The Muslim Rights Concern group also called for Falz to release an apology for his depiction of the hijab and threatened to sue. The backlash was significant enough to raise the profile of the video in the American press, with articles appearing on CNN, NPR, and entertainment sites. Throughout, Falz has remained steadfast in his commitment to the message of “This Is Nigeria”, saying “There is a lot going on that needs to be talked about, even though a lot of people may not want to hear the truth.”
ZEF, “THIS IS FRANCE”
A lesser known artist, French-African ZEF, released his French language version in July on YouTube and SoundCloud. English subtitles are provided in the YouTube video to maximise global visibility.
Instead of taking place in a warehouse, ZEF moves through French streets covered in graffiti with a break into a sunlit garden. A strong theme in the video is the discrimination against black immigrants while at the same time black culture is celebrated. “Hey proud Wakandan! Either you’re an immigrant or your auditioning for [popular reality TV show] Koh Lanta!” There is also a reference to the “Spiderman of Paris”, a Malian immigrant who was awarded French citizenship after a daring rescue of a child from a balcony in May of this summer.
I-NZ, “THIS IS IRAQ”
The international artist I-NZ of Iraqi heritage, similar to Falz, was born into a family of politically minded lawyers. His video mixes Arabic and English with a full translation of the lyrics on his YouTube page. I-NZ takes aim at the American occupation, terrorism, and the preoccupation with oil. The conclusion of the video is a recitation of the poem “The River and the Death” from early 20th century writer Badr Shakir Al Sayyab while a man in an orange jumpsuit mops a blood soaked floor.
All of these videos are both a tribute to the genius of the original as well as pieces of art in their own right for their own contexts. However, it would be disingenuous to say that “This Is America” wasn’t already fairly globally minded in its production. The director, Hiro Murai, is a Japanese immigrant to America and Rwandan born choreographer Sherrie Silver who has been vocal about bringing African dance to a global audience.
Music has always been a focal point for human rights activism, but what the success “This Is America” can teach us is that YouTube is a powerful tool for independent artists around the world. The underlying theme for the “This Is…” series remains universal, a warning not to be seduced by the gaudy world of entertainment and flamboyant politics and to pay attention to all the injustices that take place around us.